In April, when the Winston-Salem Dash kicked off its 10th anniversary season of play at BB&T Ballpark, thousands of Forsyth County residents packed the downtown stadium to celebrate. Fans of all ages have discovered that minor league baseball games, featuring young players just steps away from the majors, offer the same energy and excitement that have made college basketball so popular.
But while you’re busy scarfing down hot dogs and watching the action, you may not have given much thought to what it takes to operate a successful minor league baseball team.
A look behind the scenes reveals that hosting 70 games per season requires massive effort on the part of 25 full-time staff working year-round and about 300 seasonal hires for marketing, food and souvenir concessions, batboys, grounds maintenance, ushers, and parking staff. And, of course, there are the players and coaches, who start spring training in February to prepare for opening day in April, and a grueling game schedule until the first week of September.
Many fans know that the Dash, a Class-A Advanced team in the Carolina League, has a long-time affiliation with the Chicago White Sox.
And just before the season started in April, C.J. Johnson, the 37-year-old president of the Dash offered a simple explanation for the relationship between the local team, held by Billy Prim and Dash ownership, and the Major League Chicago White Sox.
“The easiest way to describe the partnership is that everything inside the white lines at the field is completely controlled by the White Sox. They determine which players and coaches we get here, and when a player is ready to go up to the next level. Their focus is on building and developing players,” he says.
But outside the white lines is a different story.
“Dash business comes into play. We’re here to provide a safe, playable facility for the team and affordable, family entertainment for the community,” he says. “So, with two organizations focused on different priorities, it all comes together in a great way.”
That collaboration led to the Dash topping High-A baseball attendance with 292,774 fans in 2018.
A Winston-Salem must-do
In the 10th anniversary year of play at BB&T Ballpark, Johnson has high praise for the city-owned, mixed-use facility, which also hosts 250 non-baseball related community events throughout the year.
“The ballpark is cut into the side of a hill downtown, so the view of the skyline is awesome. We’ve added new elements along the way. After year two, we put up the Outfield Bar, which is a popular place for watching games. And now there’s a stage area in the outfield so we can have live music before Saturday games,” he says. “Every year, we try to do something new or different to enhance the experience for fans.”
From a business standpoint, revenue streams are credited to ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and game day sales. Philosophically, Johnson attributes the success of Dash, as a business, to consistent focus on “affordable, family fun.”
“Folks looking for entertainment want a safe, clean, family-friendly environment. On any given night, we have 6,000-7,000 folks. There’s a cross-section in age and race. It’s about 50/50 male-female,” Johnson explains. “We try to strategically market based on our promotions. For example, families love our Chick-fil-A Four Packs.”
Eleven players from the Dash’s successful 2018 season have returned this year. Dash also has a new manager: 29-year-old Justin Jirschele, the youngest manager in full-season Minor League Baseball and a former Dash player.
The minor league life
Players often joke that the life of a minor league player is much like that of a major leaguer, minus the million-dollar contracts — and the private jets.
“It’s an interesting life, a dream for so many growing up. But it’s a grind of 140 games in 150 days,” Johnson says. “Players come here in April, not knowing if they’ll be here for the [full] five months or if they’ll move up to Double-A Birmingham next week. They’re being paid to play baseball and they play a lot. It’s a nomadic life, with a lot of time spent on the bus. It’s not easy.”
Zach Remillard, a shortstop from Cohoes, New York, and J.J. Muno, a utility player from Hermosa Beach, California, are back in town for their second seasons with the Dash. Both men share apartments with several other players and say they’re focused on staying healthy.
“In college, we played three or four games a week with days off to recover, so playing a pro schedule has been a huge adjustment,” says Remillard, 23. “We’re constantly traveling and away from our families. But in the end, it’s still baseball and that’s awesome. A lot of guys would love to be in our shoes.”
Muno, 25, who comes from a family of baseball players, admitted that some people think his life is “more glamorous” than it is. But playing in Winston-Salem, where the fans are supportive and the city has much to offer, is no hardship, he says.
“This stadium is unreal — it’s the best High-A experience by far — and we have a locker room that’s hard to beat at any level.”
He describes a home game day this way: Eat healthy and arrive at the park at 1:30 p.m. Work out, focus on fundamentals, have batting practice, prepare mentally, and stretch before the 7 p.m. game. He’s usually home around 11:30 p.m. Muno is looking forward to a visit from his girlfriend, who lives in California.
“It’s tough to be apart, but I’m so fortunate to be here chasing my dream,” he says.
If you’ve never been to a Dash game to watch these young guys “chase” — or dash — after their dreams, Johnson offers this tip.
“Some people are surprised to learn that they don’t have to be a big baseball fan to have fun here. You see folks from work and church, and the kids run the bases with our mascot. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll love it. If you’re not, the hot dogs still taste good and the beer is still cold. Win or lose — you’ll have a good experience.”
The 2019 Winston-Salem Dash season is currently underway. Tickets are $8–$16 and available at the gate, by phone at 336-714-2287, or at wsdash.com.